ABU DHABI // Albie Sachs, who was appointed by Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, was visiting Abu Dhabi when he heard the news that the former South African president had died.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time now and, when it came, it was kind of a shock,” said Mr Sachs, a comrade of Mandela’s during the struggle against apartheid.
“Mandela was part of the generation of wonderful African leaders.”
Back in 1952, Mr Sachs, who will speak tonight at the InterContinental Hotel, was a second-year law student and part of the “black movement”, of which Mandela was the volunteering chief.
“He was like my leader,” he said. “He wasn’t well known then but he was very important. He wasn’t just a lawyer who defended people but he defended justice.”
He said Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu and Mandela made up an important culture in South Africa.
“With four fantastic figures like that, it’s not just brilliant individuals, it’s a culture,” he said.
“Mandela embodied that culture more beautifully than anybody else.
“He didn’t create the process of the new South Africa, he led it. It’s a culture of millions and they articulated it.” Mr Sachs said the struggle against apartheid was one of decades and Mandela emerged as the most outstanding personality in that struggle.
“He provided particularly dignified and refined leadership,” he said.
“He will be remembered as the person who knew when it was right to be a soldier, when it was right to be a negotiator, and when it was right to be a president.
“He was willing to fight, to give his life and his liberty at the same time. He always believed in talking and negotiations and he was a great healer as well as a person who made everybody feel welcome and everybody worth listening to.”
Nahtam, an Abu Dhabi-based humanitarian organisation, was chosen by Mandela through the UN to get people involved in community work.
“It was his wish and we took up the initiative in the UAE,” said George Itty, Nahtam’s chief executive. “We were supposed to meet him six months ago but he got very sick.”
The organisation published a book of inspiring stories to celebrate Mandela’s work two years ago.
“This book has been translated into Arabic,” said Mr Itty. “We were supposed to take it to Mandela but, instead, we will inaugurate it here in Abu Dhabi.”
Mr Sachs’s lecture, Fifty years With Mandela: From Lawbreaker to Lawmaker, is at the InterContinental Hotel from 6.30pm to 8pm.